The Tree by John Fowles

‘But trees warp time, or rather create a variety of times: here dense and abrupt, there calm and sinuous - never plodding, mechanical, inescapably monotonous’



I can’t remember how I came across this book. I try to keep a record of the rabbit hole I often go down, and reference where I find out about a certain book. It’s possible that just the title alone peaked my interest. I’ve been reading books related to trees for a couple of years now. At some point I’ll make a full book list, with reviews.


John Fowles was an author, born in 1926. His most well known novel is ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, which I haven’t read, but have seen the film many years ago.


The Tree is a short non fiction book, recalling his connection and views on nature from childhood to adulthood.


John begins by recalling his father’s garden at his childhood home,


‘The first trees I knew well were the apples and pears in the garden of my childhood home. This may sound rural and bucolic, but it was not, for the house was a semi-detached in a 1920’s suburb at the mouth of the Thames, some forty miles from London.’

The trees and garden were carefully managed, pruned and tidied by his father. He began to have different experiences in nature encouraged by relatives. Soon feeling stifled by his father’s manicured patch of nature.


‘What these relatives very soon aroused in me was a passion for natural history and the countryside; that is, a longing to escape from the highly unnatural trees in our back garden, and all they stood for…… more and more I secretly craved everything our own environment did not possess: space, wildness, hills, woods..’

Following a move from their home in Essex to a remote village in Devon (due to WW2), John finds ‘real’ nature. In all it's mess, untidiness, uselessness and wildness.


He goes on to talk about his life in Devon, and his opposing views to his father who instead of seeing Devon as a wonderful dream come true was desperate for his garden back home.


The book then moves on to discuss our turning point as a society, the moment we moved to seeing ‘nature’ as a commodity and thing to be used, exploited, counted, recorded and catalogued.


‘I became slowly aware of the inadequacy of this approach: that it insidiously cast nature as a kind of opponent, an opposite team to be outwitted and beaten; that in a number of very important ways it distracted from the total experience and the total meaning of nature’

Michelle Nijhuis recently wrote a great article for Yale E360, Species Solidarity: Rediscovering Our Connection to the Web of Life which discussed the term ‘nature’, that we should drop it from our vocabulary.


John goes on to discuss Science vs nature, and how we need the arts to help us understand and connect, but essentially we need to just be and accept it.


He brings up an interesting discussion about how we connect to nature, which I’m not sure I fully agree with. However it has stuck with me and made me think.


‘ Achieving a relationship with nature is both a science and an art, beyond mere knowledge or mere feeling alone; and I now think beyond oriental mysticism, transcendentalism, ‘meditation techniques’ and the rest - or at least as we in the West have converted them to our use, which seems increasingly in a narcissistic way: to make ourselves feel more positive, more meaningful, more dynamic. I do not believe nature is to be reached that way either, by turning it into a therapy, a free clinic for admirers of their own sensitivity. The subtlest of our alienations from it, the most difficult to comprehend, is our need to use it in some way, to derive some personal yield. We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability - however innocent and harmless the use. For it is general uselessness of so much of nature that lies at the root of our ancient hostility and indifference to it.’

It’s a thought provoking read, short, but it took me some time to digest his words. I’ll leave you with one last quote.


‘We may deplore the deforestation of the Amazon basin, the pollution of our seas and rivers, the extermination of the whale family and countless other crimes committed against the wild by contemporary man. But like nature itself, most of these things take place outside our direct knowledge and experience, and we seem incapable of supposing that responsibility for them (or lack of responsibility) might begin much closer to home, and in our own species’ frightened past as much as in its helpless present - above all in our eternal association of ignorance with fear. I do not know how else one accounts for the popularity of such recent and loathsome manifestations of a purely medieval mentality as the film Jaws, and all its unhappy spawn’

Food for thought. I’d love your comments if you’ve read this book, or will you add it to your to read list?



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